Shelton Police Department's crash team seeks answers amid tragedy

Shelton police Sgt. Peter Zaksewicz opened a black three-ring notebook that held pages of information on a fatal 1990 crash on Leavenworth Road.

The 1:30 a.m. crash was a hit-and-run fatality, said Zaksewicz, who supervises the Shelton Police Department’s traffic division. He mobilizes the division’s crash reconstruction team in the event of a fatal or serious crash.

In the 1990 fatality, a motorist was standing on the shoulder of the road, flagging down someone for help, when he was struck by a speeding car. “The car spun around and took off,” Zaksewicz said.

Two police officers responded to the scene, and the crash probe began when they found pieces of the suspect’s car at the scene.

The fragments helped them determine the make, model and color of the car, and they sent out a press release to local media asking for the public’s help in finding the driver. There were other clues as well, including tire marks in the road.

Within three days, a teenage boy, accompanied by his parents, turned himself in, Zaksewicz said. He had told his parents his damaged car was the result of hitting a deer.

While new technology has changed the investigative process, compiling the crash information “is still done in notebooks,” said Zaksewicz, and cases are solved using “basic police work 101.”

The human side

The human side of the most tragic crashes hasn’t changed either. In the case of fatalities, two team members have to notify the victim’s family members in person.

It’s more of a priority today to reach the family as soon as possible. “We don’t want the family to find out about an accident over the social media,” said Lt. Robert Kozlowsky, the department’s public information officer. “We still go face to face.”

“It never gets easier,” said Zaksewicz, who has spent the past 30 years with the department. There have been 32 calls regarding fatal accidents since 2001, team members said.

“We try to get involved with the families,” said Zaksewicz, and make sure they receive the support they need after receiving such tragic news.

Team vs. solo approach

“We found a better operating system by using a team approach,” said Zaksewicz, and now up to five officers investigate serious crashes.

Their work involves taking photographs, statements and measurements at the scene, and conducting laser mapping of the crash scene on pocket data recorders.

“It’s too much of a burden for one person,” Kozlowsky said. “We take a team approach.”

Team members are “cross-trained,” Kozlowsky said, to make sure everyone can handle every task.

The officers examine evidence at the scene, use math skills to determine the speed of the vehicles, interview witnesses and hospitalized drivers, and apply for arrest warrants and for search warrants for cell phone data, cameras and data recorders.

'Like a major crime scene'

The information then is put into computers back at the police department.

“A crash scene is like a major crime scene,” Kozlowsky said.

In the case of a fatal crash, “it’s considered a homicide until proven otherwise,” said Sgt. Mark Ptak, a reconstruction team member who ran the traffic division for six years.

Team members spend from four to eight hours at a crash site, often in bad weather and at night, and it can take three to six months to complete a crash investigation.

The words “A good investigation is better than a fast investigation” are posted on the bulletin board of the crash reconstruction office.

Helping other agencies

“Crash reconstruction is one of the things the department is noted for,” said Police Chief Joel Hurliman, adding that team members do “an excellent job for us” and are “loaned out” to other police departments.

Hurliman recalled that he reconstructed a fatal accident on his own in the early 1980s, before the team concept was implemented. “Everybody did their own [investigation],” he said.

Another officer helped him for just an hour preparing the crash diagram, and Hurliman took photographs with an Instamatic camera with flashcubes.

A benefit of the team approach is continuity, allowing members to work together on an investigation, Hurliman said.

They did so in 2012 for a motorcycle versus car crash that killed the motorcyclist.

Although there was a video of the crash taken by a gas station’s surveillance camera, the police team had to review the speed of the motorcycle and autopsy results before reaching a determination.

As with other investigations, they prepared a detailed map showing the vehicles and people involved, the directions the vehicles were traveling, and a minute-by-minute breakdown of the incident.

Specialized training

The crash reconstruction team goes through special training that includes “at-scene” classes where team members learn formulas to determine speeds, as well as taking measurements and interpreting skid marks.

They take an advanced crash investigation course, reconstruction and photography classes, and classes on tractor-trailer crashes and accidents involving pedestrians.

The team has other job assignments within the police department, Hurliman said. Some are patrol officers and others are detectives.

Two department members are currently assigned to the traffic division, he said, and they’re also members of the reconstruction team.Other traffic division duties

Other traffic division duties

The traffic division also deals with speeding and parking complaints, requests for stop signs, maintaining traffic lights, and major event planning, such as the Memorial Day parade and road races.

The police chief serves as the city’s traffic authority, and Hurliman makes recommendations based on suggestions from the traffic division, Zaksewicz said.

Creating a crash reconstruction team was one of those suggestions, Hurliman said.

The police chief and team members never forget the human tragedies involved in their work, including the deaths of teenagers in car crashes. “They’re just starting their lives, and their lives get cut short,” Hurliman said.

'One of the toughest'

The 2010 fatality of one of their own was “one of the toughest,” he said.

Shelton police Sgt. Orville Smith was directing traffic on Route 110 at Indian Well Road when he was struck by a pickup truck operated by a driver who was under the influence. The driver was pulled over soon after the crash, and Smith later died from his injuries.

Despite their grief, reconstruction team members went through the painstaking steps of the investigation before making an arrest.

For team members, the fatalities they’ve faced are things they’ll never forget. “It takes a toll,” Hurliman said of the impact of working on fatal crash investigations.